Government Bowing to Demands of Mining Companies to Produce Nickel Without Regard for People's Health

In Quebec, a new daily air emission standard for nickel came into effect on April 28, 2022 in Quebec. Tabled on December 16, 2021, the Projet de règlement modifiant le Règlement sur l'assainissement de l'atmosphère -- norme nickel, was issued by the Legault government's Conseil des ministres (cabinet) and allows the mining industry to increase fivefold -- from 14 to 70 nanograms per cubic metre (ng/m3) -- the daily airborne nickel emission standard. 

This will have a direct impact on the transshipment of nickel concentrate (pentlandite) that arrives by ship from Glencore's Raglan mine in Nunavik and Vale's Voisey's Bay mine in Labrador to the port of Quebec City. It is unloaded there and transported by rail to smelters in Sudbury.

Documents obtained by Radio-Canada reveal that residents of Vieux-Limoilou, located less than a kilometre and a half from the port, already breathe in four times more nickel than those in the Saint-Sacrement sector located on higher ground in Quebec City's Haute Ville. According to this data, collected by the Direction de la santé publique de la Capitale-Nationale (DSP), the concentrations of nickel measured in the air increase when the wind blows from the port installations towards Limoilou. A highly visible red dust is deposited on homes, lawns, parks, streets and cars in the Limoilou neighbourhood.

Trying to justify this decision, the Minister of the Environment and the Fight Against Climate Change (MELCC) Benoit Charette said on January 18: "We wanted to do things right and we relied on scientists and specialists who, today, tell us that, in a very safe way, we can review this standard.” When asked to explain this statement, he added, "Quebec's standards were contrary to the spirit of many others internationally." He gave the examples of the standards in force in Ontario and Europe, which are less stringent than the one in force in Quebec from 2013 until 2022, when the Legault government changed the standard. 

What the minister did not say is that the standards in Europe are for forms of nickel concentrates that are different from those found in Quebec. This difference had even been pointed out by one of the organizations that presented a brief during the public “consultations” meant to justify having the regulations on the nickel in air standard modified in a manner more harmful to the public.

Scientific Study Supporting the Legitimate Concerns of Limoilou Residents, Ignored by Government

The Quebec Association of Physicians for the Environment (AQME) submitted a 47-page brief to the public consultations organized by the Quebec Ministry of the Environment on the controversial draft regulation.

The fact sheets on which the Legault government is basing its decision to increase the current standard fivefold state that "no data on speciation [the search for the precise kind] of nickel in Quebec's ambient air or in emissions from sources is available." when in fact the government is ignoring its own studies.

The AQME recently discovered that a scientific study on this subject does exist. Published in 2013, it is entitled Origine des concentrations élevées de nickel dans l'air ambiant à Limoilou (Source of high nickel concentration in the ambient air in Limoilou)[1] and is available on the website of the Ministry of the Environment.

According to Johanne Elsener, a veterinarian and spokesperson for the AQME, "the study [of 2013] shows that the air in Quebec City contains a totally different composition of nickel from European air."

In the brief the AQME submitted, it states:

"We have discovered a fundamental scientific error. The annual European standard of 20 ng/m3 is based on the respiratory effects of nickel sulphate, a compound present in high proportions in European air, rather than on the carcinogenic effects of nickel subsulphide (Ni3S2), a compound present at less than 10 per cent in European air. The MELCC proposes to adopt the European standard on the assumption that the composition of Quebec air is comparable to that of Europe. However, a study conducted in 2013 by the same ministry reveals that the nickel present in the air of Quebec City is totally different from the composition of European air. It is essentially pentlandite, a nickel and iron sulphide (Ni9Fe9S8) that may be associated with an increase in lung cancers in the scientific literature," explains Dr. Claudel Pétrin-Desrosiers, president of the AQME.

"As a precautionary principle, the AQME recommends adopting as an annual standard the World Health Organization (WHO) guideline value of 3 ng/m3 in PM10 based on the carcinogenic effects of nickel subsulphide. This is the standard that Western Australia, another major producer of pentlandite, has adopted," says Dr. Frédéric Tupinier-Martin, public health resident and member of the AQME. 'Medical science must conduct this file based on real data and not on invalid hypotheses; we are talking about people's health.'"[2] When asked to respond to this statement, the Environment Minister's press secretary replied that "we will not comment one by one on all the recommendations received."

As part of the consultations to change the regulations, the Quebec City municipal authorities also submitted a public brief in which it requested "an exception" in order to be "excluded" from the application of the new standard. The Quebec government refused this request, just as it refused to respond to the legitimate demands for clean air standards from the organization L'initiative citoyenne de vigilance du Port de Québec, a citizens' group that has had a mission since at least 2013 to collect and disseminate information on the environmental impacts of industrial activities at the Port of Quebec. This organization has surrounded itself with experts, or trained its own, in order to ensure that existing laws and regulations for the defence of the natural and social environment are respected by the various levels of authority, starting with the Port of Quebec authorities and the Quebec Ministry of the Environment.


1. Pierre Walsh and Jean-François Brière, "Origine des concentrations élevées de nickel dans l'air ambiant à Limoilou," Minsitère de l'Environnement et de la Lutte contre les changements climatiques, Québec, 2013, 21 pages. 

2. Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, "Nickel Standard: A fundamental scientific error denounced by the Association québécoise des médecins pour l'environnement (AQME)," February 23, 2022. 

This article was published in
Volume 52 Number 7 - July 17, 2022

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